The attention of the Daily Observer is drawn to a story carried in its Tuesday, November 6, 2018 edition headlined, “200 Acres of Mechanized Upland Rice Harvested in Foya, Lofa County. The Daily Observer reporter David Yates wrote that the Minister of Agriculture, Mogana Flomo was clearly elated by what he saw in Kpasialloe Town Foya District where he performed the symbolic harvest of 200 acres of upland rice.
The rice was produced by the Agriculture and Infrastructure Investment Company (AIIC) in collaboration with local farmers using advanced methods of cultivation involving the use of machinery such as power tillers, rice threshers, etc. Local farmers who participated in the project, according to our reporter, expressed joy for the project noting that the use of power tillers and other farm machinery greatly increased the yield as compared to those farms cultivated with the use of the traditional hoe, axe and cutlass.
The Minister of Agriculture, apparently enthused about what he saw declared that the AIIC has proven that it is possible for Liberia to become self-sufficient in food production, especially rice. He further recommended that the Government of Liberia strengthens the Extension services of the Ministry of Agriculture which will serve to provide farmers with needed advice and inputs in order to increase their farm yields.
This newspaper recalls that once ago Liberia was self-sufficient in rice production, howbeit at the subsistence level. The advent of Firestone to Liberia in 1926 signaled the beginning of the end of the country’s self-sufficient output in rice production as thousands of farm hands were forcibly recruited to work on the Firestone Rubber plantations. Since that time rice self-sufficiency began to decline and never fully recovered. Additionally, a prolonged civil war which displaced thousands and exiled thousands more led to an even greater decline in subsistence rice production which has not since recovered.
According to official statistics, Liberia spends approximately US$200 million annually on rice importation. With a population of about 4 million, most of who live below the poverty line of less than US$2 a day, such huge amount of money could be saved and invested in other ventures, should Liberia become self-sufficient in rice production. Successive Liberian governments have always declared a commitment to achieving food self-sufficiency, particularly in rice, the country’s major staple.
Experts however maintain that rice production costs are likely to remain high until weaknesses throughout the rice value chain are meaningfully addressed. According to them, efficiency gains are needed in seeds and inputs, transportation and aggregation, post-harvest handling and storage, and financing. But the question is how can these gains be achieved when support for agriculture, generally proclaimed as the bedrock of the economy, remains at an all-time low?
According to current budget estimates, allocation in the national budget amounts to US$8,291,066 or only 1.45 percent of the national budget. And from analysis conducted by the Center for Policy Action and Research (CePAR), although funding for agriculture increased from a previous level of US$5.7 million to US$8.2 million in the current budget, the amount is low and is likely to result in a situation where food security could remain impaired for a long period, meaning in other words that many Liberian families will experience considerable difficulty in satisfying their food needs.
Thus it was by no means surprising that the 2017 Global Nutrition Report put Liberia at 146 out of 152 countries in terms of priority accorded to agriculture and food security. Against this backdrop, this newspaper questions whether indeed the Ministry of Agriculture or better still the Government of Liberia is indeed serious about attaining food self-sufficiency.
For example, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) no longer has a statistics department for unexplained reasons. Moreover, according to investigation done by this newspaper, there are no economists currently engaged at the country’s sole Central Agricultural Research Institute.
Consequently, there are wide information gaps which do have significant implications for consumers, producers, traders and input suppliers meaning in effect that potential value chain investors have no trusted means of arriving at investment decisions according to a 2015 United States Agency for International Development (USAID) market study.
The call therefore by Agriculture Minister Flomo for Government to strengthen Extension Services at the Ministry of Agriculture is clearly stating the obvious. But in view of the abysmally low 1.45 percent allocation of the national budget to agriculture, questions abound whether such desired outcomes can actually be achieved.
Food aid grants such as the recent Japanese US$2.7 million food aid grant can never solve our problem of food insecurity. The Government of Liberia needs to invest meaningfully in this sector or provide incentives to local farmers and entrepreneurs seeking to invest in food production, especially rice. For example, local farmer John Selma’s call on government to provide him duty free privilege to clear 10 tractors from the Freeport of Monrovia is a matter that needs to be considered.
Why? Because it is high time the Government of Liberia provide incentives to local entrepreneurs and farmers who face stiff and unfair competition from foreign businesses. Successive Liberian governments, especially the Sirleaf led government, have granted generous tax waivers and other incentives to foreign businesses which have accrued very little tangible benefit, to the country if any at all.
In the final analysis, it must remembered that food, above all else, and unfettered access to it is what matters most to most Liberians who have to face and bear the pinch of hardship imposed by excruciating economic conditions which, from all indications, continue to worsen by the day. And so this newspaper, without fear of contradiction declare: Food Self-Sufficiency, Not Food Aid is what we as a nation need most.